Since it’s release in 2005, Big Star’s reunion album In Space has been ignored by some fans, and derided by others. Now some 14 years on, Omnivore Recordings has decided to bring this album back into the spotlight for a much needed reappraisal.
In order to really get a handle on this album, I think it’s important to understand the context. After the group’s implosion in 1974 following the chaotic sessions that would eventually be released as the group’s third and final album, the group’s only two remaining members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens would part ways. While each would remain involved in music, there seemed little hope that in spite of the cult that had begun to sprung up around the music of Big Star that a reunion would ever happen. That all changed in 1993, where the group seemingly impossibly reunited to play a live gig at Missouri University with Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow rounding out the reformed lineup alongside founding members Chilton and Stephens.
Sporadic reunion gigs followed over the ensuing years. But, other than a one-off track, “Hot Thing,” that the lineup cut for a somewhat ill-fated tribute album, Big Star, Small World, in 1997 (eventually the track ended up making it’s debut on the out-of-print Ryko compilation Big Star Story when the company behind the tribute went belly up), at any rate no one expected a new album. So when the notoriously contrarian Chilton suggested the group record some new songs, I can imagine everyone including his bandmates were somewhat shocked.
Convening in Memphis at the legendary Ardent Studios where Big Star recorded their 1970’s recordings; the plan was to write and record a song a day. At the end of the day, In Space featured 12 tracks (10 originals and 2 covers) with songwriting contributions from all members. I remember there was an almost immediate feeling of disappointment upon the albums’ release. Stringfellow later recalled: “The album was released in 2005 and a year later we found ourselves on the main stage of Primavera Sound, a prestigious music festival in Barcelona. Some 10,000 people in the crowd. Before we played ‘Hung Up on Summer’ Alex addressed the crowd: ‘Here’s a song from our latest album . . . you know, it totally bombed — just like the other ones! But don’t worry . . . 30 years from now you’ll be saying it’s the greatest thing ever!’”
In retrospect, I think perhaps we, as fans of the group might have been a bit harsh. Is it a record that scales to the heights that any of the first three Big Star albums do? The short answer is unfortunately, no. But that doesn’t mean the album doesn’t have some nice moments that do a great job of honoring the group’s prior work while pushing the group into some new sonic territory. In Space is a seriously frontloaded album with its first four tracks representing the best the album has to offer. Kicking off with “Dony,” a tune that boasts a crisp autumnal twin guitar groove with Chilton’s vocal delivery a sort of professor hulk amalgamation of all of his various personas from blue-eyed soul crooner, to lounge lizard to reluctant power pop icon. “Lady Sweet,” drizzles a little bit of daisy glaze on the proceedings that recall some of Radio City‘s hazier moments, “Best Chance,” is classic Jody Stephens power pop optimism in the same mode as Big Star’s 3rd standout “For You.” While “Turn My Back on the Sun,” is a pitch perfect Beach Boys pastiche. Which makes perfect sense given Chilton’s affection for America’s band, and Big Star 2.0’s penchant for covering “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” live.
After those first four tracks (which would have made a killer EP on their own, mind you), let’s just say your results will vary based on your level of fandom and affection for some of Chilton’s more subversive impulses such as the disco romp, “Love Revolution,” or quirky covers of The Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively” and French baroque composer Georg Muffat’s “Aria, Largo.” While the jam oriented album closer “Makeover,” is a bit of a half-baked commentary on consumerism.
In some ways, it was impossible for Big Star to ever make an album equal to that untouchable trio of 1970’s releases. Those were different times, after all. The guys who recorded In Space were different people in some cases literally, and other cases metaphorically. That doesn’t diminish some of the great music you might discover on here if you open your mind, and adjust your expectations a bit. It’s still Big Star, and although no one knew it at the time, this was their last time to shine.
Buy the album via Omnivore Recordings.